The bully and democracy

We need to begin with a very hard pill to swallow: many good things in society are not natural, and many natural things are not good. By natural I mean two things: one, a behavior that can be observed in other species (none of which have culture, except for humans). Two, that will manifest spontaneously in people from the earliest possible age.

Unfortunately, acceptance of diversity is not one of them but the reasons for that will be mostly speculative. We can think about how our DNA quit incorporating significant behavioral changes at a point where our ancestors lived in small groups frequently engaged in conflict with other small groups. In that sense, either you were one of us or you were a target for murder (and possibly food).

Whatever: it doesn’t matter. Rape, infanticide and murder are all natural and it certainly doesn’t make them moral, right or good. Some level of altruism in child care is natural, and it is one of the good things unfortunately lost in many larger societies.

Republican political organization and democratic forms of government were the last ones to appear, thousands of books have been written about them and I personally align with those authors who acknowledge that pluralistic democracy is still the best game in town but is far from perfect. Freedom, as individual freedom, equality of opportunity and institutional channels for the expression of all social interests (“interest groups”) are components of this very recent and complicated form of government.

At the foundation of modern democracies is the acknowledgement of individual rights. The role of the individual had never been this relevant in other governance systems. The American pluralistic democracy, in this sense, is the ultimate experiment in individual rights, or “individualism”, as some refer to it. “Interest groups”, or free associations of citizens representing specific rights have channels to exert their influence on public affairs and are granted a wide degree of freedom, especially freedom of expression.

There are thousands of factors that impair the functioning of pluralistic democracies.

I’d like to address one rarely approached in this light: children’s “natural” rejection of diversity and equally “natural” tendency to enforce conformity.

As a corollary to that, these tendencies border psychopathy when they reach adolescence and then dramatically dial down to quasi so called civilized behavior as soon as they become legally accountable. That is when most individuals are forced into being citizens of a democracy and, therefore, behave in completely different ways as they did as children. They can’t harass other people because they are different, they can’t beat people who challenge them, most transgressions have a price, etc.

Bullying starts very early. In a group of children of the same color, the one with a different color will be punished. If one kid manifests abilities that the rest of the group lacks, he will be punished. The smallest kid will be punished into submission because, after all, we are a hierarchical species. Very young children already display a dominance dispute behavior.

All of these things are absolutely natural and are simply mildly repressed at different degrees, in different societies or sub-groups. They are not quenched and substituted by behaviors that later on will be compatible with democracy.

Competition is healthy, merit and authority hierarchy as well, but they should only be permitted according to very well defined rules. At age 5, children become obsessed with rules. That is the perfect time to shape them into following merit-based rules. Also, the first rule children need to absorb is that, by definition, in any of their hierarchies, the responsible adult is the top dog. Horizontal relationships with children is not only reckless, but dangerous and a source of delinquent behavior. When the adult in charge is not up to the task, children frequently deviate towards delinquency.

Studies show that children differ very little in early life concerning creativity, which suggests that most of them will display significant special talents. That is the time to emphasize individual diversity in excellence. Some children will suck at baseball, but may be naturally strong (strength sports). Some children will not be built for strength or volleyball, but will be exceptional dancers. And, surprisingly, some children will be mediocre at some types of mathematical problem solving and absolutely exceptional at others. What we call “math” are sets of operations related to different areas of our neocortex. Some children will have a hard time with their words, but will express what they think and feel with what has been conventionally called art: drawing, painting, sculpting, dancing.

The point here is that an educational model where diversity is not only encouraged but celebrated, and “natural” violent group behaviors towards enforcing conformity are also violently quenched may be an important factor for democracy 20 years from now.

Today’s bully may be a perfectly nice adult in 20 years. But he may also be the eternal thug, a gang leader, an unscrupulous CEO and so many other adult occupations that don’t contribute for a peaceful and democratic society.

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